Monday, October 19, 2015

What Shall We Do With Jesus? (John 18:28-38)


In the wake of recent political debates, political zeal is increasing in our nation. Rhetoric is intensifying from the camps of competing candidates. The pressure is on to identify oneself with this one or that one, or to align against this other one. On social media, one’s stance on a particular candidate has the potential to alienate some and infuriate others. But when we reach the end of our lives, it ultimately will not matter one iota which candidates we liked and which ones we didn’t, or which ones we voted for or against. And as important as the issues at stake are for our nation, at this point in the process, remaining undecided is still a viable option. But there are matters on which it is impossible to be indifferent or undecided. We may have to withhold judgment for now on which Republican or Democratic candidate would be the best leader for our nation, but when it comes to what we shall do with Jesus Christ in our lives, the decision must be made. It cannot be ignored, put off, or avoided. He said Himself, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Mt 12:30). There are infinite and eternal consequences at stake, and there is no middle-ground.

Nowhere in Scripture is this more apparent than here in our text today. Following the informal interrogation before Annas (the man with the real religious authority in Jerusalem), and the more formal arraignment before Caiaphas (the man who held the post of high priest), the Jewish authorities bring Jesus to Pontius Pilate at the Praetorium. This word refers to the headquarters of the Roman government in a subject province. Pilate, as prefect of Judea, was normally headquartered at Caesarea. During religious festivals, such as Passover which was going on at this time, the Roman leadership would migrate to Jerusalem to keep a heavy hand on the surging population of pilgrims at a time of great religious and nationalistic fervor. While in Jerusalem, the Praetorium was likely in the Fortress of Antonia, just steps away from the outer court of the Temple. It was “early,” the text says. They had convened all night long in the adjoining palaces of Annas and Caiaphas, and at first light or just before, they brought Jesus to Pilate. The Romans divided up the night into four “watches.” The third was called “cockcrow” because of the regularity of the roosters crowing between 3 and 6 a.m. At six, dawn’s early light began to break the darkness for the watch which was simply called “early.” This was about the time that the Jewish officials showed up with Jesus at the Praetorium. This was not unusual, for many Roman officials in the ancient world customarily started their workdays before the rising of the sun, and wrapped up official matters by 10 or 11 a.m.

The Jewish authorities viewed this matter as a mere formality – a hoop through which they had to jump in route to a certain verdict. It was to be a slam dunk. Drag Jesus before Pilate on the basis of their trumped up charges against Him, and get Pilate to sign off on the execution order. Pilate was known to be a harsh and cruel man, and they must have assumed that the killing of one more Jew would bring him great pleasure. Perhaps offended by their presumptiveness, paranoid of creating an uprising, or alarmed by a dream that his wife had the night before about Jesus (recorded in Mt 27:19), or for some other equally unexpected reason, Pilate here shows a surprising measure of restraint and unpredictable impartiality. He insists on a fresh hearing in his presence. In what appears to be an uncharacteristic stand for justice, Pilate actually entraps himself in the impossibility of being indifferent to Jesus Christ. He becomes an example to us all that we must ultimately decide to be for Him or against Him. How do we do that? Pilate follows the right course, but ultimately falters in the conclusion. However, his footprints along that course help us come to the place of decision for ourselves. What shall we do with Jesus?

I. We must consider Jesus for ourselves. (vv28-32)

Do you like Indian food? I love Indian food. Now, if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said that I didn’t. That’s because I’d never had it. I had often heard other people say that they didn’t like Indian food, so I figured I better not try it. I refused a tray of curry chicken on a transatlantic flight once, but other than that, the closest I’d ever come to an Indian meal was watching the dinner scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But after being put in a situation where I had no other choice but to eat Indian food, I realized that all those other people I’d listened to (including Indiana Jones) had led me astray. I had to make a decision for myself, not rest on the decisions of others. Of course it really doesn’t matter whether or not you like Indian food, but it matters a great deal what you decide about Jesus. And you must decide for yourself.

Deciding for yourself means that you will not be persuaded by the baseless claims of others. Notice that Pilate went out to the Jewish authorities and asked, “What accusation do you bring to this man?” Notice their answer: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.” In what conceivable way does this answer Pilate’s question? They had no charges to bring against Jesus, and they knew it! They’d bribed a couple of fellows, according to the other Gospels, to make up some charges, but even their testimonies could not agree (Mk 14:55-59). They’d built a theological case against Jesus because He defied their traditions and personally offended them, but they knew that they didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to persuading Pilate. So they tried to dodge the question.

We will find the same thing in the religious rhetoric of our own day. People speak against Christ and against Christianity with venomous ire, and expect others to mindlessly follow along. Ask them questions before you do. What has Jesus done, or not done, to make you despise Him so? In what way has Jesus failed you? In what way have you definitively disproven His claims? What historical errors have you personally discovered in the Gospel accounts of His life and ministry? Most often, though they may become louder and more animated, they cannot provide actual answers to the questions. Many of them have themselves been persuaded by the baseless claims of a college professor they were intimidated by, a friend they admired, or a family member they respected. They have not considered Jesus for themselves, and they merely want you to follow them in their own folly. Like the Jewish officials before Pilate, they have baseless claims that they cannot substantiate. If you would consider Jesus for yourself, you will not be persuaded by that.   

Deciding for yourself also means that you will not be persuaded by the biased claims of others. The Jewish authorities had a reason to reject Jesus, just not a good one. He had exposed their hypocrisy and their sin through His teachings and His encounters with them and cast a shadow on their reputation, thus threatening their power and influence over the populace. They could not outreason Him, either with holy Scripture or human logic, so their only recourse to silence Him was to kill Him. Jesus knew that this was their intent. He had warned His disciples numerous times in advance that He would be put to death, even alluding to the manner of His death. He spoke of being “lifted up,” which could only refer to the Roman torture of crucifixion. But the Jews could not do this without Pilate, because Roman law deprived conquered peoples of the power of capital punishment. That is why they say, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”

The hypocrisy of these officials is evident here in the text: They are so concerned for their ritual purity that they would not even enter the Praetorium, for entering a Gentile’s residence would defile them. But they think nothing of killing an innocent man, and violating every underlying tenet of the very law they claim to uphold to secure their wishes. Not to mention their hypocritical pandering to Pilate, whom most of them would have despised anyway. He was one of the most hated men in Judea because of his cruel treatment of the people and his repeated defilements of their religious sensitivities and the temple of Jerusalem. But the officials play to him as if he is their best friend in order to gain what they want from him. They need his signature on the death order, so they had to pander to him, even though they hated him. Their bias against Jesus had completely distorted their entire value system beyond what it already was!

We find the same today, do we not? When people lambast Jesus Christ or His followers in the public square, is not often the case that the axe they have to grind relates to His confrontation and condemnation of their pet sins and their hypocrisy? Jesus said in John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Else the case may be that Christ and His sword-like word has cut against the grain of their treasured beliefs and traditions, and without even considering the possibility that His words are true, they reject Him. They will say, for instance, that Jesus could not have performed the miracles recorded in the Bible because miracles are impossible. Ah, but it is the impossibility of them that make them miraculous. And if such phenomena actually took place in history, then they are not so impossible after all. But rather than investigating the historical authenticity of the reports of Jesus’ mighty works, they write them off by their preconceived bias that supernatural deeds are not possible. If you would consider Jesus for yourself, you will not be persuaded by biased claims.

In Matthew 16, Jesus presented His disciples with two questions. The first was, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The second, and more important one was, “But who do you say that I am?” It ultimately does not matter what others say about Jesus. Their claims may be baseless or biased, who knows? What matters infinitely here and now, and will matter eternally when life ends is what you say about Him for yourself. Each and every human being must consider Christ for himself or herself. In demanding to hear the evidence of the case presented before him, Pilate was off to a good start of doing just that. But he began to stumble when he said, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” He was trying to avoid making a verdict for himself, and when it comes to Jesus, that is a position that is never afforded anyone.

That brings us to the second factor as we answer the question, “What shall we do with Jesus?”

II. We must be seekers of truth. (vv33-37)

Did you ever watch the television show “Columbo”? If you did, you recall that Lieutenant Columbo was a seemingly inept detective who always got his man in the end. The way he did it was by always asking a lot of questions. Eventually, he’d wind around to the right questions and get the answers he was seeking. In academics, a question-and-answer methodology is often referred to as the Socratic method, named for the philosopher Socrates. In Socrates’ day, the sophists were philosophers who used persuasive rhetoric to entertain or impress their hearers into uncritically accepting their views. But Socrates would engage his hearers in a dialogue based on questions and answers. Asking the right questions can be a great means of discovering truth, if we bring those questions to the right source.

Pilate seemed to know that. Unimpressed with the rhetoric of the Jewish authorities, Pilate brought Jesus inside the Praetorium and began to ask Him several very important questions. In verse 33, he asks, “Are You the King of the Jews?” In verse 35, “What have You done?” These are the most important questions that can be asked about Jesus: Who is He? What did He do? But Pilate did not take a popular opinion poll on these matters. He did what we all must do. He brought the questions to Jesus to let Him answer them for Himself.

You will notice in verse 34 that, before answering Pilate, Jesus gets at the motivation for the questions: “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” The difference is significant. Jesus never turned away from anyone who was genuinely seeking truth for themselves. But Jesus also never wasted time or words in engaging in an endless debate with people who were disinterested in truth, or who merely wanted to trap Him with His own words. If Pilate is personally enquiring, then “perhaps Jesus can lead him to better or deeper understanding.”[1] But, if Pilate is merely parroting what others have said, then Jesus knows that the deck is stacked against Him already. It is not that Jesus does not already know the contents of all of our hearts, but in asking the question, He is forcing Pilate, and all of us, to examine the motive of our inquiry.

Here Pilate tries to bob and weave and maintain his slippery posture on the fence. He says in verse 35, “I am not a Jew am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me.” Essentially, Pilate is saying, “Why should I care? I don’t have a dog in this fight.” But this position is impossible to maintain if we are seeking truth. Truth is not something that can be studied with disinterest. Truth calls for an active response. Pilate cannot get off the hook so easily, nor can anyone else. To continue the metaphor, everyone has a dog in this fight!
When Pilate asks his second question, “What have you done?”, Jesus begins to answer both of his questions. He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” There it is. If He has a kingdom, then He is a king. He never denies it. When Pilate asks again, “So You are a king?”, Jesus says, “You say correctly that I am a king.” But Jesus is clear to explain what His kingship means. He has not come to overthrow Rome or liberate Judea from its tyranny. That would be too small a thing for a King whose kingdom is not of this world. He says, “If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews.” One of them had tried to take up the sword, but Jesus rebuked him and supernaturally healed the one whom he struck. Kings of this world preserve their power by force. Jesus has no need to do that. His kingdom is not of this world. It is neither established nor defended by force. His jurisdiction is universal, His authority is anchored in heaven, and His mission is not to liberate one corrupt nation from another. It is to liberate the entire human race from the tyranny of Satan and enslavement to sin.

How does this King accomplish this? He says, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” His Kingdom is established, advanced, and defended by the power of His word. Those who hear His word and believe become citizens of His kingdom, and are delivered from the powers of evil at work in this world. John will say in his First Epistle (5:4) that those who are born of God by faith overcome this world by the victory of Christ. Thus, Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Understand the weightiness of this radical claim. Jesus is here saying that He was born to be a King, but not of this world; a King of a wholly other realm that knows no borders or boundaries. And this King claims that He has come into the world to reveal the truth of God. He claims to be the complete revelation of who God is, and that apart from Him, there is no truth to be known about God. In John 14:6, He said that He is the truth. These radical claims knock everyone off the fence. As C. S. Lewis famously said, the one thing we must never say about Jesus is that He was merely a great moral teacher. Lewis said,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic … or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit and Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.[2]

And this brings us to the final issue as we answer the question, “What shall we do with Jesus?”

III. We must follow truth wherever it leads us. (v38)

In that climactic courtroom scene in the movie “A Few Good Men,” when Tom Cruise exclaims to Jack Nicholson on the stand, “I want the truth!”, Nicholson boldly retorts, “You can’t handle the truth!” But this isn’t the movies, this is real life in the real world. If you are going to seek truth, and you must, then you have to ask yourself if you can handle the truth and where it leads you.

Truth will lead us to an inevitable decision. Once truth is discovered, we have to decide to receive it or reject it. We can no longer remain indifferent. And nowhere is this more vital than in the case of what we shall do with Jesus. Pilate has asked gone directly to the right source, and he has asked the right questions, and received the right answers. But still he tries to sit the fence. He says abruptly, “What is truth?”, and leaves the room. Carson says that his question comes “either because he is convinced there is no answer, or … because he does not want to hear it.”[3] And in this way, we see in Pilate an almost prophetic image of our contemporary culture. The worldview of postmodernism that has dominated our society for the last half-century is built upon the presupposition that all truth is relative, and that there is no such thing as an absolute truth – truth with a capital “T” that is true for all men at all times and places. People will say, “That may be true for you, but it is not for me.” With truth being relative, every person can decide for himself or herself what is right and what is wrong, and if you choose to judge my standards by your own, then I can label you with that most heinous placard: “You are INTOLERANT!” It is utterly impossible to build our lives on this kind of shifting foundation. Do you understand that even the claim that “there is no absolute truth,” is itself an absolute truth claim? The claim that there are no standards of morality is itself a standard of morality, and the person who tries to thrust that standard upon another is no different from one who says that, say, the Ten Commandments are the standard of morality. It is impossible to deny for long in the real world that there are standards and absolutes. Truth with a capital “T” is unavoidable and impossible to ignore.

But perhaps, as Carson suggests, Pilate’s question actually reveals that he is unwilling to hear the truth. The fact is that we all have an innate knowledge of truth and right and wrong. If you don’t believe that, consider how you would respond if someone were to steal something that belongs to you. You would say, “That’s not right!” The thief may say, “Sure it is. I can do anything I want.” And you may say, “That’s not true.” And the thief could merely say, “It may not be true for you, but it is for me.” And you might then say, “That’s not fair!” And immediately you find yourself caught in a trap of trying to simultaneously affirm and deny the very same standards. Could it be that we have spent much of our lives trying to avoid the responsibility that the truth of God brings to bear upon our souls? The Apostle Paul, in Romans 1, speaks of people who know the truth but who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. When the truth speaks harsh words to us about our sin or our unbelief, we have a decision to make: reject our sin and unbelief, or reject the plain truth. Like Pilate, you can try to dismiss this notion of truth, but soon you will be hung on your own noose. Dismissing truth does not make it go away, nor does it exempt us from our accountability to it. If we are committed to seeking truth, we must follow it all the way to the inevitable decision to accept it, surrender to it, and conform our lives to it; or else continue to live in rebellion to it. And if the truth is found in Jesus Christ, then life, death, heaven and hell are at stake in the decision. To not decide is to decide, and the decision may well be eternally disastrous.

This, therefore, means that the pursuit of truth will not only lead us to an inevitable decision, but it may well lead us to an unpopular position. Pilate had all the information to make the right decision, and he almost did. He went out on his portico and announced his verdict: “I find no guilt in Him.” But because Pilate’s power and prestige rested upon maintaining order in the land, when the people began to cry out against his decree, he waffled and gave in to the demands of the horde surrounding him. He had followed the right course, asked the right questions, and arrived at the right conclusions. But then he cowered under pressure and sent the Son of God to the Cross.

Friends, you should beware, if you decide to cast your lot with Jesus, it may prove unpopular with those surrounding you. But, you must never fear truth. Romans 10:11 says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” You might be unpopular, things might get uncomfortable, but ultimately and eternally, you will find satisfaction nowhere else than in the truth of God embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ. You should know how Pilate’s story ends. He waffled to safe his own skin at the expense of the life of Jesus Christ. But within a short time, his determination for self-preservation led him to order a bloody massacre of a multitude of Samaritans, resulting in him being removed from his post and recalled to Rome. It was not long after that the shamefully took his own life. His efforts to preserve his power, his prestige, and his image destroyed him. His earthly kingdom was threatened by the eternal Kingdom of Jesus, and in seeking to save it, he lost it. The same will be true for us. If we ignore truth as a measure to secure our own sovereignty over our lives, our kingdom will come toppling down around us at some point. Jesus said if we seek to save our lives we will lose them, but if we are willing to lose our lives for His sake, we will find life abundant and eternal in Him, because He is the truth. And so the question for us all is not what others think about Jesus, but what shall we ourselves do with Jesus? We must decide for ourselves. We must seek truth. And we must be committed to following that truth to the inevitable decisions and unpopular positions to which it may lead us. So what will you do with Jesus Christ?

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 593.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 52.
[3] Carson, 595. 

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